WHEN THE PAS-led state government of Terengganu decided to enforce segregated seating in accordance to gender in its sole cinema in Kuala Terengganu1, the announcement sparked much discussion and debate.
With this new ruling, the management of the Kuala Terengganu cinema had to divide the cinema halls into three sections, for men, women and families. This policy physically separates male and female moviegoers who are unmarried or unrelated by blood; and applies to both Muslims and non- Muslims.
Gender segregation policies are not new to Terengganu. Queues at the supermarkets have always been segregated; and proposals were mooted in 20182 to forbid women from performing in front of male audience members. Exempted from this rule, however, are events for children.
Terengganu is not the first Malaysian state to enforce gender segregation. Kelantan, also a PAS-led government, has maintained similar policies for queues at supermarkets, cinemas – the state saw the closure of its last cinema in 19903 – and since 2008, for performing arts events4.
Sporting events must also abide by such rules. Kelantanese men are prohibited from audience participation for female sporting events, e.g. netball tournaments5; and in another sport example, the state government halted an aerobics event for fear of intermingling and a lack of physical distancing between men and women6. It also called for the segregation of men and women during a 7km fun-run in 2017.7 More recently, the Kelantan state government is intending to build gender-segregated public swimming pools.8
Segregation Quickly Grows into Insurmountable Gaps
By definition, segregation is a social process that divides an individual or a group on the basis of distinctive differences from other individuals or groups. In the context of sex and gender segregation, it is important to remember that this separation in accordance to biological sex and / or gender is not only physical. In most instances, it is also legal and / or cultural.
Gender segregation policies, specifically physical separation, are often justified through the lens of religion and morality, and are deemed necessary to protect women’s honour and safety. Put simply, these are in place to shield women from unwanted attention and harassment; and this is what forms the crux of the argument continually propagated by the Terengganu and Kelantan state governments.
Are such actions efficacious in stopping the rise of social ills, especially those of sexual nature? There has been no affirmative research done thus far that details a positive correlation between the imposition of gender segregation policies and the decline in social problems. Ironically, Terengganu and Kelantan allow the practice of child marriages, where underage teenagers are promised to much older men; the crime of incest remains a black mark for both states. Having gender segregation policies in place do not seem to have diminished such social problems.
Furthermore, physical gender segregation in the realms of art, entertainment and sports viewership tends to encroach into other public spaces. There is a very real possibility that women may be subjected to more restrictions, if gender segregation in public spaces becomes the norm. These policies serve to amplify the differences between men and women, hinders the fight for gender equality and unfortunately, barricades women’s participation in other spheres of life.
Women’s Private and Public Wellbeing
Cultural and social stereotypes are bases from which ideas of gender segregation are propagated. To illustrate, despite an increased participation in the workforce, women still put in more time performing domestic work. To be fair, men have also taken on more responsibilities in the domestic realm, but their contribution has not grown at the rate of women’s participation in paid employment. In essence, domestic core work remains gendered.
Instances of gender segregation can also be observed in the workplace. Occupational segregation sees gender identities assigned to jobs and occupations that are of “masculine” and “feminine” natures. This inevitably creates a gender imbalance across different occupational businesses, e.g. the science and technology sectors have a significantly higher percentage of male workers, and the converse holds true for teaching and nursing employments.
Occupational segregation is a main cause of the gender wage gap as well. Jobs in women-dominated fields are considered to be less impressive, and tend to command a lower pay. This phenomenon, however, is not noticeable in industries where men are over-represented. Curiously, women who hold similar positions as men, and with identical job responsibilities are unable to command the same level of pay.
Gender segregation policies, specifically physical separation, are often justified through the lens of religion and morality, and are deemed necessary to protect women’s honour and safety.
Also, what can be significantly improved upon is women’s representation in politics and public life. Women have long struggled to reverse the typecast of being perceived as emotional and indecisive, and to be accepted as strong leaders. The inherent patriarchy within the leadership structures of political parties has likewise prevented women from securing nominations as candidates. Hearteningly, in Penang, where the Gender Inclusiveness Policy has been in effect since 2019, gender mainstreaming has been put into practice, with the aim of having at least 30% women participation in the Penang State Legislative Assembly.
Gender equality is achievable in an atmosphere that is inclusive, and where equal opportunities are afforded to all. In this sense, safe spaces of mutual respect can be created by both men and women, in ensuring that all voices are heard.
1 Yap, W.X. (7 July 2020). Terengganu Cinema Separates Non-Mahram Men & Women On Top Of Half-Capacity RMCO Measure, retrieved from https://says.com/my/news/terengganu-cinema-separates-men-women-into-2-zones-on-top-of-half-capacity-rmco-measure
2 Habibu, S. (20 February 2020). Gender segregation for events soon, retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/02/19/gender-segregation-for-events-soon
3 Aziz, A.A. (13 September 2005). Segregated seating for Kelantan concert-goers, retrieved from https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/40353
4 Malaysiakini. (29 January 2008). Kelantan bans women entertainers, rock groups, retrieved from https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/13020
5 Asia News Network. (21 August, 2014). Kelantan PAS government bans males from watching female sports, retrieved from https://www.asiaone.com/malaysia/kelantan-pas-government-bans-males-watching-female-sports
6 Zainudin, F. (23 October 2017). Kelantan govt: Keep ‘proper distance’ between men and women, retrieved from https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/10/23/kelantan-govt-maintain-proper-distance-between-men-and-women/
7 Free Malaysia Today. (23 July 2017). Critics slam segregation of men, women in Kota Bharu run, retrieved https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/07/23/critics-slam-segregation-of-men-women-in-kota-bahru-run/. It should be noted that participants defied the order and ran together as a group.
8 The Sun Daily. (19 November 2019). Kelantan to request funds for ‘gender-segregated’ public swimming pools, retrieved from https://www.thesundaily.my/local/kelantan-to-request-funds-for-gender-segregated- public-swimming-pools-DC1613588
Yeong Pey Jung is a senior analyst with the Socioeconomics and Statistics Programme at Penang Institute. She is a reading enthusiast and is surgically attached to her Kindle.